We arrived early on Wednesday afternoon at Spirit of Suwannee Music Park, about four miles north of Live Oak, FL to discover a large operation prepared to handle crowds of music lovers, appropriate for a Music Park that hosts a range of events. We’ve come for the Spirit of Bluegrass Music Fest this weekend and then the Suwannee Springfest next. It’ll be interesting to see how these two festivals, the first a bluegrass festival and the second an
A good bluegrass festival presents a mixture of the tried and true, the up and coming, and national headliners. It also offers a mix of traditional and progressive styles of music. By that measure, Spirit of Bluegrass met the goal.. Promoter Don Miller and artist contact and promotion man Ernie Evans have hired a significant range of bands for the weekend. A cynical fan might suggest that the economics of the business make such a mixture a necessity, but organizing this way insures the future of the music by showcasing bands for the future as well as satisfying the desires of fans to hear and see established bands.
The program opens with a group of teenagers from
His daughter moved to the city,
His only son went off to the war,
He tries not to lie there in self pity,
But he just can’t take it any more.
Katie has written a classic bluegrass lyric which would do James King or any other purveyor of sad, pitiful songs proud.
Mellissa King is a pretty sixteen year old girl from
Cadillac Sky is one of those bands that proves controversial at bluegrass festivals. By dint of some inspired schedule juggling they closed both Thursday and Friday nights, as well as having an early afternoon set on Friday. This band plays high energy rocky grass with a
Randy Kohrs provided us with another band we had not previously heard. Kohrs is a master Dobro player with a strong country music strain in his music. He hits the stage hard and plays his instrument hard, wringing stunning arpeggios from the resonator guitar. He is one of the masters of this unusual instrument. His band provides him with strong instrumental and vocal support and his performance was thoroughly satisfying on this day featuring a lot of fine musicians.
Michelle Nixon lost her favorite pillow in
Sometimes it takes a while to learn to appreciate a band. Two bands at
IIIrd Tyme Out is a classic bluegrass band that has been around for quite a while. Recently, founding member Ray Deaton announced he will be leaving the band at the end of this season to join his fiancée Anita Fisher’s band. But the two other anchors of this band, Russell Moore on guitar and singing lead and Steve Dilling, one of the great banjo players, will find a way to replace Deaton’s booming bass voice and rock solid beat on the bass fiddle. It was at this performance that Dilling and
Well designed festivals build to a climax on their last day. Three day festivals ending Saturday can go long into the night, while Sunday festivals usually end in mid-afternoon to enable attendees to be home for work on Monday. Sunday festivals also often have a strong gospel flavor for much of the day. The Spirit of Bluegrass festival ended on Saturday with a couple of highlight bands as well as strong performances from lesser known groups. Peachtree Station opened Saturday morning with a traditional bluegrass performance featuring good, solid playing and singing. They were followed with more of the same from The Williams & Clark Expedition. Blake Williams, whose career includes a long stint with Bill Monroe as one of the Bluegrass Boys, always provides good stage humor along with fine banjo work. Bobby Clark, a former world champion mandolin picker, and Wayne Southard, a first class flat picking guitar player provide solid backup for Kimberly Williams’ singing and bass. Blue Moon Rising and The Chapmans each offered two solid sets to assure that every act on the bill was worth hearing.
Somehow we have missed the two featured bands of Saturday. Kenny and Amanda Smith combine wonderful vocals with Kenny’s superlative guitar picking. There are more guitar players at a bluegrass festival than any other instrument. The guitar often serves primarily as a rhythm instrument in the hands of singers who aren’t first rate pickers. While the importance of rhythm instruments in driving bluegrass sound cannot be overestimated, a band with good banjo and mandolin players and a rock solid bass beat can get along with a weaker guitar. Also, the guitar is not a loud instrument and must be very carefully miked and well-served by the sound people This festival has been blessed with some very good flat picking guitar players, but Kenny Smith stands head and shoulders above the rest. He is simply one of the two or three best flat pickers in the world. His fast and accurate playing compliments Amanda’s vocal range and modulation to lift this group above most others. (One of my highlights occurred backstage where Kenny was jamming informally with seventeen year old Cory Walker, a wizard banjo picker who was playing guitar and staying with Kenny note for note.) Amanda’s voice is silky smooth and always under control. Her well modulated singing seems almost effortless, as powerful when singing quietly as on more raucous tunes. She is at her best in balladic songs. Their band features lots of committed gospel music as well as traditional vocals and instrumentals and their own compositions. Joey Cox, recently added to the band on banjo, is fast and accurate and demonstrates greater range than he did with Blueridge. Jason Robertson on mandolin and Zachary McLamb on bass round out this terrific group. The interaction between Kenny and Amanda, which focuses on their deep devotion and mild good humor works well with the younger, more brazen voices of their sidemen. It all comes together into a delightful performance. Their recordings are wonderful, too.
The highlight of the festival for me was seeing Sammy Shelor and the Lonesome River Band. I knew that Shelor was a wonderful banjo picker, but I had been confused by what appear to be constant changes in the band’s personnel. Not to worry. Shelor’s dynamism and powerful picking assure that they’ll stay excellent, no matter who plays with him. He has a dominating stage presence. He is tall, lithe, and his shaved head gives him an appearance somewhat reminiscent of James Carville. He dwarfs his Huber banjo, not unlike Kenny Ingram. He moves around the stage with unusual grace, almost dancing as he moves into and then away from the mike, giving his playing great dynamic range. Brandon Rickman, lead singer, would have been the best flat picker at
This is an ambitious festival that wants to grow. Irby Brown did a competent job as m.c., mixing homespun humor with keeping the event moving along on schedule. Promoter Don Miller took some chances in bringing bands like Cadillac Sky to the festival as well as providing some of the best traditional bluegrass bands in the country. The programming taste he and Ernie Evans show in scheduling and band selection assures that this will continue be a first class festival if it receives the support it deserves. It is aided by being in one of the best locations possible. There is lots of good jamming all around the camping area. The amphitheater at Spirit of Suwannee could handle four or five times the crowd who came for this year’s bluegrass festival. It deserves to be filled.